The Poblano Child
By Deborah Cassell
Look up “poblano” in the dictionary, and you should find a picture of Rick Bayless alongside it. The celebrity chef is famous for his love affair with the tropical, dark green-skinned pepper, which is used in a number of dishes at his downtown Chicago restaurant Frontera Grill — home to Bayless’ distinctive, contemporary take on regional Mexican cuisine. (Bayless also runs Topolobampo, a more upscale sister restaurant, next door.)
People line up for the chiles rellenosat Clark Street’s Frontera Grill, which recently was named 2007 Outstanding Restaurant in the United States by the James Beard Foundation. Previously, the foundation named Bayless Best American Chef: Midwest (1991), National Chef of the Year (1995) and Humanitarian of the Year (1998). He also won the foundation’s award for Best International Cookbook with “Mexico — One Plate at a Time,” a tie-in to his PBS show of the same name, now entering its sixth season.
In addition to having two successful restaurants, and accolades and cookbooks aplenty, Bayless has a line of products from Frontera Foods that includes salsas, tortilla chips, stone-fired pizza, authentic desserts, and sauce and drink mixes.
Meanwhile, his nonprofit Frontera Farmer Foundation helps to promote small, sustainable farms in the Chicago area by providing them with capital development grants.
In this exclusive interview, Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery grills Bayless about his nationally recognized restaurant — now celebrating its 20th anniversary — favorite eats (hint: anything wrapped in a tortilla, make that a freshly made tortilla), and a forthcoming cookbook — his seventh to date.
Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery: As a boy, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
Rick Bayless: I thought I might be in the restaurant business as a kid. But as I grew older, I studied all sorts of things … language, anthropology. Then I went to Mexico for the first time, and that was it. I was hooked.
SF&WB: What is your earliest cooking memory?
Bayless: I grew up in a restaurant — my folks had a BBQ place in Oklahoma City. I have been cooking ever since I can remember.
SF&WB: Why did you pick Chicago for Frontera Grill? What has made it such a success?
Bayless: We thought about LA and NYC, but my wife’s family is from around here, and we thought it would be great to have their support. I think we are successful because we really aim to have the best ingredients on the plate. And I think that Chicagoans know good food.
SF&WB: What are the most popular dishes at Frontera Grill? How often do you alter the menu?
Bayless: We change the menu in each dining room once a month. As far as the most popular, hard to say, but we always keep our classic ceviche on the Frontera Grill menu and, of course, the guacamole.
SF&WB: How has the restaurant changed over the past 20 years?
Bayless: I think that Chicago in general has changed. We are known for being such a food town now … rivals to NYC … and I think that is great.
SF&WB: Describe your favorite sandwich. Favorite snack? Favorite dessert?
Bayless: I always answer this with — it is the next one that I will eat. I don’t play favorites!
SF&WB: I recently saw part of your presentation at the Custer’s Last Stand street fair. What do you enjoy about doing such events?
Bayless: Meeting and talking to folks. Everyone had a story about their favorite recipe or a question that is about buying local. I love it.
SF&WB: What do you hope for people to get from watching your show, “Mexico — One Plate at a Time?”
Bayless: Insider tips — culture that they would not have learned or known had they traveled to Mexico on their own, enthusiasm for the cuisine.
SF&WB: Your daughter has appeared on the show, too. Is she a chef?
Bayless: She is really interested in the pastry side. She works in the pastry station during the summers.
SF&WB: What is a typical dinner for the Bayless family?
Bayless: Simple. Easy. Stuff from our garden. A quick salad, meat on the grill.
SF&WB: Have you ever eaten at Taco Bell? (Dare we ask.)
SF&WB: What inspired your Frontera brand food line? For example, your pizza?
Bayless: I lived above a pizzeria in Mexico City. The smells made me so hungry. They did all of their pizzas with Mexican flavors — chorizo, poblano chilies, etc. So I thought we should try it. They are really good!
SF&WB: What is your favorite place in Mexico and why?
Bayless: Again — I travel to all parts of Mexico — no favorites. I do go to Oaxaca every Christmas. I have good friends there.
SF&WB: Do you have any guilty pleasures when it comes to food?
Bayless: Good doughnuts.
SF&WB: Any new cookbooks in the works?
Bayless: Yes — a Mexican entertaining book all about great parties …
SF&WB: When it comes to tortillas, which do you prefer — corn or flour?
Bayless: You can’t beat a homemade corn tortilla. We still have our fresh masa delivered daily and have our fabulous tortilleria making them all day for our guests. Simply the best.